09-17-14: Lisa See Collects 'China Dolls'
My first thought on seeing 'China Dolls' was: "Not for me." But my contrary instinct kicked in; whenever I have a knee-jerk reaction, I force myself to remember the second word in that phrase. I opened the book and started reading instead of judging it by the cover. It took about one paragraph for me to become immersed in the voice of Grace, the narrator, and that was that. I really did not want to put down the book until I finished it as See carefully explores, over the next 400ish pages, the lives of three women in the midst of World War II America.
Not quite the midst, actually, since America doesn't get in the War until well into the story. But See's ability to capture and corral three very different voices, of three very different women, all involved in one way or another in richly evoked scenes of San Francisco's "oriental" nightclubs is sweet, smart, heartbreaking and disturbing but never less than utterly compelling.
Grace, Helen and Ruby form the trio of voices that take you through tumultuous years of American history, from the Exposition on Treasure Island to the great nightclub years in the city, to Pearl Harbor and the internment camps. The characters of these women are remarkably and entertainingly distinct. Grace is the lynchpin, a Chinese girl brought up bery Ameican who always wanted to dance. Helen is brought up in the confines of a family compound in San Francisco's Chinatown, and Ruby is Japanese, a free spirit ho is understandably passing herself off as Chinese. See does a great job of making each character someone whose perceptions readers look forward to returning to. By virtue of character alone, she turns the book into something of a page-turner.
The plot is surprisingly epic. See starts out in san Francisco and begins the book with a charming exploration of the Chinatown nightclubs. Readers might well have been satisfied had she stayed there, but she follows her characters into darker realms of history. As the world is torn apart, so are the characters, and See does not succumb to the temptation for unearned happiness. 'China Dolls' may seem like a bit of a lark, but See is too smart to let herself or her characters off easily. Charm evolves, and as we are engaged in these stories that reach into our lives, into our world, it's hard to put the book down and harder to forget it.
'China Dolls' starts off and looks to be a rather light book, full of fun and verve, and that certainly is true, for the beginning of the novel at least. But Lisa See's ability to invoke time and place through character enable her to craft not just a chorus of great voices but an entire world. See knows that light is best seen in contrast to darkness.
09-16-14: Lauren Beukes Illuminates 'The Shining Girls'
A Glimpse of Grubby Terror
We do not see much of this world. If we saw more, it might burst our minds. We string together the glimpses that we are afforded and feel immersed. That's good enough. We first meet Harper, a creepy sort of grubbin, giving young Kirby Mazrachi a plastic pony. We instinctively don't like Harper. Older men are not to give young girls toys. It's a bad sign. But in a crafty magic trick, in 'The Shining Girls,' Lauren Beukes shows us more of our world than we might think we'd like to see and makes it engagingly terrifying. For every human terror, there is a human wonder.
Terror takes us in and keeps us mesmerized. Beukes ratchets Harper back to 1931, when he stumbles upon a borderland in the middle of a city. From there, and with the help of place itself, in this case Chicago, Harper embarks on a unique killing spree, inspired and guided to snuff out the lives of girls who offer promise and tragedy to the world. If you've not already been handed the heart of this heavenly novel, consider yourself lucky, and just pick it up. Like revenge, it's best served cold.
Beukes vision of Harper is a grubby, churlish delight. He's not really smart, but he does possess a sort of low cunning. He's ugly and violent and horrific, but Beukes serves up murder scenes that are scary without being luxurious. Harper may be a serial killer, but in order to do so, he has to solve a very unique set of problems. He's a terrible, awful person, unsympathetic but not unengaging. it's a tough line to walk, but Beukes does so without effort.
Beukes' women are another matter; sometimes tragic, sometimes strong and powerful, always evocative of time and place and always assiduously researched to create complex characters who live up to the title. Yes, thet title is very important here. The book is really about women who shine, women who might have had an opportunity to effect huge changes in this world. But the parts of this world we don't see, those we cannot see, those we do not wish to see have an unfortunate effect on these women. Harper is simply a symptom. Happily, and saitisfying, there is a potential cure; Kirby.
Kirby is an almost-vicitm, and her special status helps her put together, with some engaging men in her life, just how an unintelligent low-life like Harper can prey on women who are indeed "the shining girls." Putting together the pieces of the crime and the solution are outstandingly fun, if always nerve rattling. Beukes knows how to craft tension without over-stretching a taut wire. s
For all the terror and wonder and tension to be found here, 'The Shining Girls' does something more than simply one-up the serial killer novel. Beukes has a means of evoking those places and moments between our everyday perceptions of the world. Her prose suggests not just what we see but what we miss, much of it full of wonder. We see people; she sees stories.
09-15-14: Alan Cheuse Reveals 'An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories'
Infinite Worlds Within
We exist in a universe of our own invention. No matter how much we might like to think ourselves creatures of a "real world," reacting to forces that are beyond our control, pragmatic handlers of day-to-day issues and ideas, the fact of the matter is that our blinkered vision is very much the sum of who we are. Getting outside our own perspective is yet another invention.
With 'An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories' Alan Cheuse manages to take readers outside their own hads and into worlds and lives that might as well be those of Martians. The stories here take us so very much there, into lives we'd never think to imagine. Cheuse uses the economy of the form to extract the maximum strength from what often seems to be an unfortunately well-informed understanding of how those other than himself and those perhaps very much like himself live. Happily, he's an equal opportunity explorer, and there's a lot of humor to be found here amidst the darker understandings.
The title story is an invocation of sorts, an invitation in a mind that imagines other minds and how they see the world. It evokes the fantastic worlds that live within us all. The stories that follow explore those worlds and fid a variety that's entertaining and occasionally painful as humanity itself. Cheuse has the means to channel voices; take for example the story he reads in our conversation, "Nailed," about a middle-aged man who takes his girlfriend to get a pedicure and decides to get one himself. He manages the neat trick of being hilarious while he's being almost painfully honest — about his character.
But Cheuse is also happy to venture well outside his own comfort zone. In his novel, 'To Catch the Lghtning,' he looked into the soul of photographer Edward Curtis. Here, in "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," he looks into Ansel Adams' life. In "Gribnis," you'll find a great recipe for onions and a fine story of family. In "Days Given Over to Travel," Cheuse imagines mother's dying thoughts, a heart-wrenching fantasia of language. Cheuse re-writes, or fills in the cracks of history with his picture of a bawdy, funny Ben Franklin in "Ben in Amboy."
The key to Cheuse's power as a writer of short stories is his unflinching honesty with his characters and himself. He never spares them the shame or the embarrassment of being human. These are often stories of shortcomings, of those who try but cannot live up to their own expectations, let alone those of others. That honesty proves to be refreshing, an embrace of humanity as it is, an embrace of people as they are. The marvels to be found here are those we may see, indeed those we may be in any moment of our lives. Our ability to invent and re-invent ourselves is nothing less than our own personal key to infinity.